With the recent 14th General Elections (GE14) in Malaysia, the courage and determination of Malaysians to choose change was guided by two words: “Pakatan Harapan” which literally means an “alliance of hope.” It is not the victory of one man or one woman, but the victory of an alliance – of people who allied themselves, above all, with hope; the hope for a new beginning, and the hope for a new day.
Some, like former Malaysian ambassador Dennis Joachim Ignatius, named this election victory as a “Nation Reborn”. While I was born in Malaysia, I now call Canada my home. Herein lies my citizenship. But I cannot tell you how closely I have watched and stayed with the struggle of Malaysians to choose change since the last general election five years ago.
At that time, the divisiveness of the country was reflected in its citizens wearing “Red T-shirts” and “Yellow T-shirts”. The latter was a march by men and women of Bersih (The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) – which evolved from Bersih 1.0 to Bersih 4.0 – and the millions who marched with them.
At the GE14 elections, I did not see the dominance of red and yellow colours on the streets of Malaysia. It was, in fact, a “quieter” movement. It was as if there was a quiet anticipation of new things to come. At the same time, “new things” would not come on its own, as if by osmosis. New beginnings required Malaysians to come out and cast their votes, and for some, it was a decision to vote despite the systemic and infrastructural odds that were seemingly designed to make the casting of their votes as difficult as possible. Some, for example, had to travel considerable distances to exercise their right to vote.
What then can we learn from the evolving story as Malaysians made this decisive shift from rallying around Bersih (literally translated as ‘clean’) to rallying around Harapan? And I don’t mean rallying around any one party in particular, rather a rallying around the language of hope.
Emily Dickinson wrote:
Hope is the thing with feathers,
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tunes without the words,
And never stops at all…
In a curious way, we can say that GE14 is a testimonial that Malaysians have never stopped singing the tunes of hope in their hearts. Hope was always perched in their souls. The difference today is that the tunes of hope are now being sung in public. It has emerged from the heart and is now finding its place in the social realm. What then, does it mean to choose hope?
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It’s a new day
In my book Intentional Leadership: Getting to the Heart of the Matter, I devoted a chapter to “Barack Obama: Hope and the Promise of a New Day.”
As you already know, Obama was the former President of the United States of America. Allow me to share 10 critical points from that chapter because I think it is, and is going to be, so relevant to the political and social practices of a new beginning that is based on hope, particularly in Malaysia.
To rephrase Dickinson, allow me to sing the tunes of hope with the words of hope as highlighted by Obama. Obama was scornfully labelled a “hope-monger”. In a 2008 speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church this is what he had to say:
“You know people have remarked on the fact that I talk about hope a lot in my campaign. You know they – they, tease me a little bit. Some have been scornful. They say, ‘Ah, he’s talking about hope again. He’s so idealistic. He’s so naïve. He’s a hope monger.’ That’s okay. It’s true. I talk about hope. I talk about it a lot because the odds of me standing here today are so small, so remote that I couldn’t have gotten here without some hope.”
Obama did not reject that label because the odds of him, a black person being elected President, were so remote. He admitted that he was not born into money or great wealth, or great privilege, or status. In that 2008 speech, he noted he got to where he was because he was “given love, education and some hope. That’s what I got. That’s my birthright.” In casting their votes for hope, I believe that Malaysians are affirming that “got to where they are” because they gave themselves both the gift of love rather than hate (Point #1), and the gift of education. They are choosing, in other words to not leave anyone behind in a state of ignorance (Point #2).
But there is something else at stake. Hope was also part of what Obama received as his “birthright”. What can we make of this ‘gift’ and what is its significance for Malaysia? As a black person in America, Obama did not deny the diagnosis of his times. It was a real stretch of the imagination to even conceive of a black person being the President. That was a part of his reality.
Perhaps some may have told him that it was simply ‘idealistic’ to think otherwise. But that did not stop him. In running for the seat of presidency, what is important to note is that he denied the verdict of hopelessness. He acted out of the imagination of what is possible. He refused to be imprisoned by what was considered to be “reality”.
Similarly, Malaysians did not deny the diagnosis of their times. For example, Malaysians live in challenging times, past results have not produced real change, many before have tried and failed, the party in power had been in power for 61 years, gerrymandering and shifting of voting boundaries made the verdict of success more probable for the ruling party, there were promises of more public holidays, and so forth. The courage shown by Malaysians is grounded in their active denial of the verdict of hopelessness. They acted on their imagination that change is possible and that they have a rightful place in their society because it was (and is) their ‘birthright’.
In his final year as President in 2016, Obama reflected on the imperfections of democracy in his country. In his last presidential State of the Union address, he challenged his citizens to reach across differences and choose the politics of hope rather than the politics of cynicism and fear. It was his way of calling his citizens to choose all that unites rather than divides.
Given the history of elections over the course of the years in Malaysia, it would have been very easy for Malaysians to be cynical, to believe that change is not possible, to believe that politics is hopeless, and thereby deem that their actions and their voices won’t matter. And yet, the results of the GE14 elections demonstrated that Malaysians chose not to be cynical, and neither did they choose despair.
Unlike hope, despair leads not only to cynicism but also to fear. In his address at the 64th National Prayer Breakfast in Feb 2016, Obama noted that fear is dangerous in that it can lead us to lash out against those who are different. It can lead us to succumb to paralysis; it can feed our most selfish impulses and erode the bonds of community. The power of fear is that it can be contagious, spreading through societies and through nations.
Photo credit: Reuters
The irony is that Obama also made the same claim about the contagiousness of hope. In his address to the People of Northern Ireland, in June 2013, Obama described the Northern Ireland peace process as a blueprint to end other conflicts around the world. Obama acknowledged that while there are people living in the grip of conflict – ethnic conflict, religious conflict, tribal conflict, and so forth – these same people are also aware that there is something better out there.
People are looking for ways to discover how to move beyond the heavy hand of history, and to put aside violence. Obama went on to note that others are studying what the Irish are doing as they are the blueprint to follow. “You’re the proof of what is possible,” he said, “because hope is contagious.”
In a similar way, insofar as Malaysians have rallied around hope, the world will now be celebrating and watching. Others will, I believe, celebrate your choice of hope.
At the same time, they will also be looking to Malaysia to be a “politics-of-hope-blueprint” to follow. Others will be looking to Malaysia to discover how they go about the process of moving beyond the heavy hand of their history and how they go about putting aside past grievances, for the sake of unity. Therein lies the challenge and demand of choosing hope.
One deliberate feature of the new Malaysia blueprint, as I see it, will be to deliberately reject the politics of fear – not fear itself – but the politics of fear. The politics of fear divides. Instead of calling citizens to come together with a common and shared purpose, the politics of fear preys on the fears of others as a way to scare up votes.
Perhaps this was the unintentional consequence the GE13 campaign that was represented by the opposition between the red T-shirts with yellow T-shirts. Both the “reds” and the “yellows” sucked themselves into the game of division, and in so doing, they both allowed fear to reign. The politics of fear (GE13) led to the continuation of a party that ruled Malaysia since her independence in 1957.
As I see it, what is particularly appealing in the GE14 elections is that Malaysians demonstrated a higher level of maturity. They did not only want a clean and fair election. Instead, they wanted a better future for all in their own country; they wanted to reclaim their rightful and respected place in the world of hope. Above all, they wanted a world without corruption, bribery, and a government that serves the people.
They want to live in a world where integrity reigns. They understood that the language of ‘clean’ could only show itself against the language of ‘dirty’. They understood that the politics of clean and the politics of dirty add to division and fear and that both perpetuated and sustained a politics of “us vs them”. In choosing the politics of hope, they chose to step away from division and fear. If antonyms of fear are calmness, encouragement, assurance, joy and trust, then they have chosen to step into those realms. This is hope’s promise. The world will now be looking to Malaysians to fulfill their promise. Malaysians will be looking to their political leaders and to themselves to fulfill such a promise. The fulfilment of hope’s promise will be the work of all and not any one person.
To use a phrase of Obama, Malaysians “flipped the script”, or as Pope Francis would say, “flipped the omelet”. In voting for change, they flipped the “same old same old script”. In doing so, they keep hope alive. We must, however, be clear. This one big action – voting for change – will not change things immediately or overnight. Instead, it will be a series of small actions and ‘small wins’ that will gain momentum over time.
In his University of Cape Town South Africa address in June 2013, Obama quoted Bobby Kennedy when the latter also spoke at the University of Cape Town in 1966. Kennedy said:
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
As a Malaysian-born Canadian, allow me to celebrate with you. Thank you for standing up for an ideal; to improve the lot of others, to strike out against injustice not through violence but by getting your hands dirty (in this case, your fingers dirty with indelible ink), and for sending forth a tiny ripple of hope. If Kennedy is right, then this tiny ripple will gain momentum over time across different centres of energy and daring.
Instead of building walls, the tiny ripple of hope that you send forth will help others tear down walls of oppression, repression, racial divisions and injustice.
As John Lennon sang in his song Imagine:
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace (yoo-hoo, ooohh…)
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world (yoo-hoo, ooohh…)
You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us.
And the world will be as one.
Malaysians, welcome to the age of hope.
Politicians are servant-leaders whether they like it or not. Their job, as we all know it, is to serve the people first. Sadly, many politicians tend to quote that statement but once elected fail to the job they once promised they would. The choice to practise that type of leadership in the end lies with them. Check out this thought-provoking piece at: bit.ly/ANpoliticsserve
Malaysian-born Dr Stan is currently a research associate and lecturer in Canada. As a scholar-practitioner in the discipline of leadership studies, he has published two books and several academic articles on leadership, and he brings over 25 years of experience both in the public sector and in higher education. As he continues to monitor the political situation in Malaysia, this hope, within 2 years seems to have dissappeared. The previous regime, has managed to somehow through the back-door, attain back its power and the country is now in a state of turmoil and sadness. The economy has collapsed and its people are in shambles.